The memory of a disastrous start to his college career still lingers in the back of Rodolfo Cazaubon’s mind, providing a little extra motivation and perspective every now and then.
One of those times came last week when the North Texas senior stopped to reflect on his journey from Tampico, Mexico, to the top of the world of college golf.
Only 156 players will be left standing when the NCAA golf tournament enters its final stages today at The Capital City Club, Crabapple Course in Atlanta — the members of the 30 teams in the field and six players who qualified individually, a group that includes Cazaubon.
“I’m going to go, fight until the last hole, take the opportunity and see what happens,” Cazaubon said. “I can compete with anyone there. I have already played against the best guys. When you are playing as an individual, you can go there and enjoy it.”
After the first couple of weeks of his college career, playing for the national title seemed like a distant goal for Cazaubon, who was struggling just to earn a spot in UNT’s tournament lineup and adjust to a new environment.
UNT head coach Brad Stracke recruited Cazaubon out of the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy near Orlando, Fla. The academy offers foreign players a place to go to high school and work on their skills before playing collegiately in the United States.
At first, it appeared as if Cazaubon might be a bust at UNT after arriving from the academy.
UNT’s players competed in a preseason event to determine who would compete in the Mean Green’s first event of the season before Cazaubon’s freshman year.
Cazaubon didn’t make the cut.
“I remember that,” Cazaubon said. “I had a back injury and didn’t play in that first tournament my freshman year because I didn’t play well in the qualifier. That first tournament was in New Mexico. Not getting to go motivated me a little bit.”
A few weeks later, Cazaubon was out of UNT’s lineup again, this time because Stracke suspended him for the third tournament of the year over academic issues.
Missing those tournaments provided the spark that helped Cazaubon get on a roll a short time later. He finished in the top 20 seven times over the course of the rest of the season, was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and finished eighth in the NCAA regional.
“Rodolfo kept getting better every day,” Stracke said. “By the end of his freshman year, he was one of our best players.”
The determination Cazaubon showed during a tough start at UNT was what helped him through the process of adapting to a new country that didn’t go as planned at times.
Cazaubon grew up in Mexico, where he developed into a top junior player.
Gary Gilchrist, a noted instructor and former pro, visited Cazaubon’s home club in Mexico on multiple occasions and got to know his family. That relationship led Cazaubon to attend Gilchrist’s academy, a move he credits with helping launch his college career.
“It was worth it,” Cazaubon said. “Gary helped me a lot.”
The problem was only a few college coaches across the country noticed. Cazaubon played mostly in Mexico growing up and didn’t receive the exposure in American Junior Golf Association events some of his peers enjoyed.
“Not a lot of people knew about him,” Stracke said.
Nick Clinard, who was the head coach at Central Florida at the time, and Stracke were two of the coaches who noticed Cazaubon while he was at the Gilchrist academy.
“I really liked Florida and wanted to go to UCF, but the coach left for Auburn,” Cazaubon said of Clinard. “He offered me there [at Auburn], and I was really close to going, but coach Stracke sent me an e-mail and we started talking. Auburn didn’t offer me very much scholarship money, so I decided to go to North Texas.”
The decision turned out to be the right one for Cazaubon, who has won three individual titles as a senior and just missed on picking up a fourth when he lost to Lane Hulse of South Alabama in a playoff for the Sun Belt title.
Cazaubon was also named to the All-Sun Belt team in all four years of his career and helped UNT win back-to-back conference titles his junior and senior seasons.
“He has to be one of the best players we have had in the last 30 years,” Stracke said. “He’s in the top five in the last 50.”
That is a significant accomplishment in arguably UNT’s most successful athletic program. The Mean Green won four straight national titles beginning in 1949 and produced PGA Tour legend Don January.
Cazaubon’s name will go down alongside some of the greats in program history no matter what happens this week or down the line in what Stracke said could be a successful professional career.
Cazaubon will likely try to qualify for the U.S. Amateur later this year and then begin a professional career. He is keeping his options open, but leaning toward trying to qualify for the European tour.
Before he begins his professional career, Cazaubon has one last tournament to play in as a member of the Mean Green.
The final rounds of the NCAA tournament are a long way from where Cazaubon started as struggling freshman.
“It was something a freshman would do,” Cazaubon said of being suspended for a tournament. “You learn from it.”
Cazaubon certainly did, and used the experience as a launching point for one of the memorable careers in the history of UNT golf.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.